Montreal Canadiens Need to Adapt to Early Injury Bug

During one of my regular weekly beer-league games last week, one of our most reliable players caught a rut in the ice and fell awkwardly into the boards, injuring his shoulder. He immediately left the ice for the dressing room. After the game, we all inquired about his status and learned that he would, most likely, miss the remaining games of our season. We lamented now having to find a spare to replace our fallen comrade. He was also the guy who brought the water bottles and the pucks to the game. We would need to find a substitute for that task, as well.

While clearly on a different scale, the news that both Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron were having surgery performed on their wrist and knee respectively, and would be out of the Montreal Canadiens lineup for an extended period of time, surely created a similar feeling of uncertainty and disappointment. With the Canadiens now having crossed the quarter mark of the season with a current record of 11-6-5 in 22 games, the team is third in the Atlantic Division with 27 points. How will the Habs adapt to the loss of their two veteran players?

Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin
Jonathan Drouin suffered a wrist injury in a game against the Washington Capitals on Nov. 15. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Let the Juggling Begin

The injuries to both Drouin and Byron happened during the team’s inspired 5-2 road win against the Washington Capitals on Nov. 15 at the Capital One Arena. For head coach Claude Julien, the loss of two forwards has created some headaches.

In Drouin, the team is missing a player who, according to many of his teammates, is playing the best hockey of his career. Leading up to the Capitals game, Drouin had seven goals and eight assists for 15 points and was tied with Tomas Tatar as the Canadiens’ top point-getter. He was also playing 16:50 per game, fourth among forwards, behind Phillip Danault (18:12), Max Domi (17:04) and Brendan Gallagher (16:59).

However, the immediate aftermath of the injuries has allowed rookie Nick Suzuki an opportunity to play center on the second line alongside Domi on the left and Joel Armia on the right. With more experienced linemates and increased ice time, Suzuki has scored two goals in the three games since the injuries occurred. With an average ice time of 17:31 in these last three games, one would expect Julien to keep his first-year player at the top-six status going forward.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Current roster situation provides Nick Suzuki an opportunity to remain a top-six forward. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The team’s top line consists of Danault at center with Tatar and Gallagher on the wings. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, still adjusting since his return from a groin injury, centers Artturi Lehkonen and Jordan Weal (in for Byron) on the third line. Charles Hudon, recently called up from the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket is slotted on left wing on the fourth line, centered by Nate Thompson and with Nick Cousins on right wing. However, these forward line combinations have yet to produce a win for the team since the injuries occurred.

The Pain of Injuries

  • Nov. 16 vs. New Jersey Devils: 3-4 overtime loss
  • Nov. 19 @ Columbus Blue Jackets: 2-5 loss
  • Nov. 20 vs. Ottawa Senators: 1-2 overtime loss

As a result, the line juggling continues. It is reported that more permutations will be tested. While the top line will not change, the key changes include moving Domi to center alongside Lehkonen and Suzuki on the second line. Also, Hudon moves up to the third-line left wing.

Expected Forward Lines

  • First: Tatar-Danault-Gallagher
  • Second: Lehkonen-Domi-Suzuki
  • Third: Hudon-Kotkaniemi-Armia
  • Fourth: Cousins-Thompson-Weal

Impact on Special Teams

The Canadiens’ challenges with special teams have been well documented. Currently sitting at 12th in the league in terms of power play percentage with 20.9% and 29th on the penalty kill with 72.5%, it is in the latter category that the absence of Byron will create an additional challenge for the coaching staff.

Byron has had a disappointing season thus far. With only one goal and three assists in 19 games, he has not been meeting expectations. Nevertheless, his speed makes him a valuable asset on the penalty kill and coach Julien has been using him for that specific task. Byron has been averaging 1:53 of ice time shorthanded, the seventh highest on the team (fourth among forwards).

Paul Byron
Paul Byron’s absence will create additional challenges on a struggling penalty kill unit. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On the power play, the absence of Drouin will surely have a significant impact. At an average of 2:45 of ice time with the man advantage, someone will need to provide for those minutes going forward. Expectedly, leading the team in power play goals with three, Armia will be used to fill the void. In the three games since the injury to Drouin, Armia has played a total of 4:26 with the man-advantage, fifth behind Domi, Shea Weber, Gallagher and Jeff Petry.

Help from Laval

At the beginning of the season, it was expected that Ryan Poehling would be the first call-up from the Rocket once the inevitable challenge of injuries hit the team. Following the absence of Kotkaniemi due to a groin injury, Poehling predictably joined the team for the Nov. 5 game against the Boston Bruins. It was a brief stay. Playing in only four games with no points, he was returned to Laval.

The injuries to Drouin and Byron created another opening on the Habs roster. This time, the team called Hudon to fill the spot for the Nov. 16 game against the New Jersey Devils. In three games, he is still without a point.

Charles Hudon #54 of the Montreal Canadiens
Charles Hudon was called up from the Laval Rocket. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Should more regular players, especially forwards, make their way to the team’s medical room, it is uncertain who could come in to help. Development being a long and complicated process for young players, it is expected that Poehling would still be the go-to call-up for assistance.

With Drouin sidelined, scoring is a pressing need for the Canadiens. In that respect, should the situation become dire and urgent, considerations would need to be given to Alex Belzile who currently leads the Rocket in scoring with six goals and six assists in 19 games.

There is NHL experience on the roster in Laval. Depending on the need and the urgency of the situation, players such as Dale Weise, Michael McCarron and Karl Alzner, to name a few, could be called. However, should the team be required to go that far down in the talent depth chart, it would surely signify that the Canadiens infirmary is overcrowded.

Constant Search for Solutions

The loss of experienced players is not an insurmountable challenge in the context of a team’s long and grueling journey through an NHL season. However, the timing of the losses could create more significant collateral issues during the final months of the regular season and the push to make the postseason. Playing desperate hockey in the final months in an effort to get to the postseason is not ideal and, in most cases, leads to a very ephemeral presence in the playoffs.

On the optimistic side, it is still relatively early in the season for both these players to recover and, in the case of Drouin, continue to play inspired hockey. For Byron, a successful return from his injury would allow him to make up for the disappointing start to the current season. However, these are best-case scenarios.

The types of injuries suffered by these players might require more time than anticipated to fully heal. Also, upon returning, there will be the required adaptation to the pace of play following an extended absence. This will be like jumping backwards on a train that is going full-speed. It will not be easy.

Coach Julien will need to find sustainable solutions rapidly. The overused cliché that every point in the standings is of critical importance is true. Unfortunately, the team has dropped some of these points over the last three games against admittedly weaker opponents.

Claude Julien
Head coach Claude Julien will need to find the right line-up solutions for the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

The following games will offer a strong indication as to what will be the team’s ultimate fate in the 2019-20 season. Will other leaders on the team such as Domi, Gallagher, Tatar and Weber elevate their game to match the urgency of the situation? Will players such as Lehkonen, Kotkaniemi or Suzuki rise up and contribute beyond expectations? Will the help coming in from the farm team justify the confidence the coaching staff have in them by giving them NHL playing time? Should the situation become more desperate, will Marc Bergevin need to seriously contemplate possible trades?

These questions will only be answered in the coming weeks as more games are played with the forward line combinations and defense pairings that are currently available to the team. The only certainty in this current situation is that the Canadiens’ favorable position in the standings will deteriorate if the right solutions are not found.

Upcoming Games

  • Nov. 23 vs. New York Rangers
  • Nov. 26 vs. Boston Bruins
  • Nov. 28 vs. New Jersey Devils
  • Nov. 30 vs. Philadelphia Flyers

The loss of a key player due to injury in my weekly beer-league games creates a situation to which our team will adapt. Unlike the Habs, our depth chart is filled with grizzled veterans who can step in and immediately contribute to the team’s performance. Also, we will not be negatively impacted come springtime hockey. League rules guarantee that every team makes the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, that is not the case in the NHL.